Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

I finished up In the Sanctuary of Outcasts lately, a book with deep Biblical ties through the centrality of leprosy. Neil White's memoir revolves around the time he spends in a unique prison near New Orleans. He is there for bank fraud, but it is not only a prison, but also a home to lepers. For years they have lived there, dwelling quietly in this sanctuary. It is an odd combination, especially since no one is truly sure how leprosy is passed from one to another or who gets it and why.

White was a successful businessman, always chasing the next dime and self-importance. Fancy boats, houses, cars and offices were the objects of his desire, as well as the cause of his downfall. The check kiting scheme is too difficult for me to explain here, but he is sent away for 18 months in this unique jail while his family must deal with the debt and humiliation left behind. It is in jail his understandings of life and people begin to change.

There, in prison, he begins to overcome his fears and interact with the patients, in particular an elderly woman in a wheelchair named Ella. It is these people, voluntarily living in this sanctuary, hidden away from society while their bodies are often ravaged, who teach him what it means to be free. He evaluates his measures of success and the importance of family. He gains a new understanding of the sacrament of communion. He sees people who live simply, honestly, with integrity, and begins to ask himself difficult questions. He struggles with family issues, plans for success, and so many other core issues in his life.

I enjoyed White's book because it focused on the struggles we have. We all ask big questions; it doesn't take being arrested to do that. In a unique setting White uncovers true beauty in each of the patients as well as some of his fellow inmates. He looks deeper, beyond the first layer of fabric of ourselves, and realizes how much depth and beauty there is in each of us.

It's a quick read, and an entertaining one. Maybe it'll bring up some big questions you've been meaning to ask yourself...

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